Indian fabrics, ancient and advanced, on display at the DC Museum

Storytelling tapestries and unique beetle-shaped garments are on display in a new exhibit at the Textile Museum at George Washington University.

A beetle-winged garment is seen at the Textile Museum at George Washington University. (WTO Photo/Luke Lukert)

OMCP/Luke Lukert

1,200-year-old fabric found in Egypt at the George Washington University Textile Museum. (WTO Photo/Luke Lukert)

OMCP/Luke Lukert

Piece that used metallic salts to dye cotton from 1667 in the Textile Museum at George Washington University. (WTO Photo/Luke Lukert)

OMCP/Luke Lukert

The George Washington University Textile Museum. (WTO Photo/Luke Lukert)

OMCP/Luke Lukert

Storytelling tapestries and unique beetle-shaped garments are on display in a new exhibit at the Textile Museum at George Washington University.

The “Indian Textiles: 1,000 Years of Art and Design” exhibition highlights the intricate and breathtaking fabric work of India, which is celebrating its 75th anniversary of independence.

“We have over 90 masterpieces created over a period of about 1,000 years,” said textile museum curator Lee Talbot.

It is made up of the museum’s own collection of Indian works as well as the private collection of Karen Thakar.



The exhibition spans two floors of the museum and features everything from a long narrative tapestry depicting a poets journey through India, to floral-patterned tunics.

Talbot said the oldest piece in the collection even predates the title of the exhibit.

“It dates from around the eighth century, so it’s around 1,200 years old. It is a fragment of Indian printed cotton that was found in Egypt,” Talbot told OMCP. “It is interesting to note that India has a very old textile tradition, but the climate is not really conducive to the survival of textiles. So the oldest textiles we have from India were actually found in Egypt.

Over the ages, Indian artists have become masters in different textile techniques. The Indian subcontinent is also rich in natural resources for textile fibers and dyes.

“So these natural resources combined with millennia of human ingenuity have resulted in a very wide range of fine fabrics,” Talbot said. “They are particularly known for their cottons, and cotton is a particularly difficult fiber to dye.”

Talbot said Indian textile artists realized early on that in order to dye cotton, they had to apply metallic salts to the garment.

Between craftsmanship and science, the results have impressed many over the millennia. Talbot made his case by pointing to a 1667 coin that belonged to an Indian ruler.

“So imagine if you know about this technology. You look at something like that, and you can just see the hundreds of hours, the incredible skill and craftsmanship that would go into making something like that,” Talbot said.

One of the most fascinating pieces in the exhibit doesn’t involve dyeing at all. It is embroidered with scarab wings and has been perfectly preserved for about 200 years.

“The wings of beetles are extremely fragile. They don’t survive very long. They can break off, but beetle wings are also very tasty for other insects, so they tend to get eaten,” Talbot said.

The exhibition “Indian Textiles: 1,000 Years of Art and Design” runs until June 4.

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